The absorbing life of a final-year Ph.D. student

The absorbing life of a final-year Ph.D. student

Hello, my name is Jason Rawlings and I am a final year PhD student at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL). I am part of the astrophysics group here at MSSL and in this post I will describe the final year experiences of a Ph.D. student at MSSL.

MSSL is the UK’s largest university space research group. The lab resides in the Surrey hills and started life as Holmbury House, built in the 1870’s. The building was transformed into a space lab in the late 1960’s.


A couple of shots of MSSL and its environment.Image

There are many different groups here at the lab, including instrumentation, cryogenics, plasma, planetary, solar and astrophysics. In the astrophysics group, we have a wide range of research topics that include simulations of spiral galaxies, galaxy formation and evolution, X-ray binaries, high-redshift active galactic nuclei and dark matter and dark energy.

With MSSL not being located in London along with the rest of the University, being a student at the lab is a different experience to most Ph.D. students. There are about 30 students here in total and with everyone knowing everyone; this creates a close community atmosphere. Students at MSSL have the opportunity to present their work to each other in a more relaxing environment, without the presence of supervisors or other senior staff, while students in the astrophysics group attend the weekly seminars given by experts in the astronomy field. Outside academia, there are plenty of social activities for students to take part in, with visiting the many local pubs being a particular favourite. Many students also have the opportunity to live in on-site accommodation. An added feature of working at MSSL is that we are treated to a picturesque view of the natural surroundings.


The view of the surrounding Surrey countryside from my office.

As part of the final year of a Ph.D. comes the daunting task of writing your thesis. To describe and condense the work you’ve done in the last 3-4 years is no easy challenge and perseverance is definitely a quality that’s needed in a finishing Ph.D. student. A thesis is broken down into different chapters, with at least three of these presenting original research by the student. Each of these should describe a different project undertaken during the Ph.D. It can help if some of your work has been published in a peer-reviewed journal as this can form the basis of a research chapter. There is a definite learning-curve when doing a Ph.D. and thankfully a lot of progress can be made in the final 12 months when one fully gets to grips with the field they study.

My interests are in infrared and radio extragalactic astronomy and the research presented in my thesis investigates the emission of photons from the formation of stars on a large scale and from active galactic nuclei (AGN)- accreting massive black holes at the centre of all galaxies (see one of our previous blogs here for more information on AGN and star formation). Both processes can emit the photons at the same wavelength and so when observing a particular galaxy, the emission can get mixed in together making it hard to tell which process is the most powerful. Fortunately, we have models that describe how the emission from each process changes with wavelength. By adding these models together and changing their relative strengths, it is possible to create various composite models. These models can then be compared to observational data. From the composite model that agrees with the data the most and the individual model with the greatest strength, one can infer which process is dominating the emission. This is a useful technique and one that I employ in my thesis for different samples of extragalactic radio sources- galaxies with powerful radio emission. The work during my Ph.D. has shown that radio sources with an AGN can have a strong component from star formation which means that they are producing stars at an exceptional rate.


An artist’s impression of an active galactic nucleus. Credit: Aurore Simonnet/Sonoma State University

Throughout a Ph.D. the student encounters various milestones. Now the aim is to reach the final milestone and submit…


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